Mystics in the Postmodern Age

Interview with Carmelite Father Jesús Castellano Cervera

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ROME, JAN. 7, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Mysticism is alive and well -- and very much connected with the real world, says a Discalced Carmelite.



Father Jesús Castellano Cervera, vice rector of Rome's Teresianum Pontifical School of Theology (www.teresianum.org) and a consultor of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, talks here about how mysticism should be understood -- and the role of mystics vis-à-vis the world.

Q: Who are the mystics of our times?

Father Castellano: It is not easy to answer this question. First of all, we would have to clarify what we mean by mysticism.

In regard to an extraordinary experience of God, which goes beyond our merits and our techniques, mystics frequently remain hidden in the silence of God and manifestations of their experience only appear filtered in some writings and by the fruitfulness of their apostolic works.

Only when their life is over is the mystical experience they have lived appreciated, as now seems clear in the writings of [Mother] Teresa of Calcutta in which one can perceive the trial of the "dark night" and of the intense experience of passive purification, prelude to her missionary fruitfulness.

As regards mystics who are bearers of a message of God to the Church and to humanity, discernment is very necessary, so as not to fall into error.

Today there are many people who speak in the name of God, of the Virgin, and of the saints, who present messages. Today mysticism abounds on Internet, where there are many sites with revelations and messages.

However, without the positive judgment of the Church, which always moves with lead feet, it is very difficult to classify these people as mystics. The Church is investigating many of these visionaries, and looks for absolute certainties.

Those who act as mystics in the Church or in society are not always the most worthy of belief. A mystical experience must be backed by the Church -- its concrete and clear approval. I believe there are more genuine mystics than one thinks. I know several people who have a genuine supernatural experience of God, but I prefer not to give their names. God will reveal them in the opportune moment.

The present-day mystics are those who feel, live, spread the important messages of a God who speaks to postmodernity, and opens new channels for the new evangelization. As in the time of Teresa and John of the Cross, they are the ones who affirm forcefully the presence of God in the life of people, the genuine meaning of grace, the ability to see God in the night.

Q: There are those who link mysticism with depression or epilepsy. Is this because of a lack of understanding of the mystical phenomenon, which is mysterious by definition?

Father Castellano: There have always been distortions in understanding true mysticism, because of false mystics. The accusation of hysteria is the common interpretation of mysticism, since the start of the 20th century.

And still today there are those who persist in these false hermeneutics. Reference should be made to the authority of an expert such as H. Bergson, who made an extraordinary apologia of Catholic mystics, seeing in them realism, balance, humanity, the capacity for action and relation, of creativity.

Suffice it to compare the mystical experience of Teresa of Jesus with her activity as foundress, the realism of her letters, her sense of humor and appeal, her humanism and ability to relate -- to see that mystics are the splendor of humanity. All of which is far removed from hysteria and depressions.

In the mystics I know, even though aware of their many dark nights, I admire above all their human balance and capacity for action.

Therefore, true mystical experience preserves the balance of the human person even during intense passive purifications that for many might verge on madness or despair. However, in mystics, humility, meekness, mercy, tenderness, understanding of human frailty is maintained and grows.

Like Thérèse of Lisieux, they even understand those who are tempted to suicide and are able to sit at the table of sinners in despair. Or, like the Orthodox monk Sylvanus of Mount Athos, in the midst of trial they are able to maintain their soul in hell without losing the hope of salvation.

H.U. Von Balthasar and Chiara Lubich teach us that the highest mystical experience, the limit of the mystery, is that lived by Christ when abandoned on the cross. And with him, many saints who, like him, transform pain into love.

Q: Are so many people interested in mysticism as a way of evading a chaotic and complex reality?

Father Castellano: True mysticism is far from an evasion of reality. When there is a real experience of God, it is God himself who sends people out on the paths of history. The mystic who sees God looks at the things of this world with the very tenderness of God. And he does not remain inactive. He lives an apostolic mysticism.

This is good mystical doctrine, which is already seen in St. Gregory the Great and is found throughout history, including in the best mystical theologians of today.

Q: Mysticism and politics: relation or antinomy?

Father Castellano: The mystic wishes to be the presence that translates into words and deeds, in suggestions for the Church, the will of God, the carrying out of his will.

If by politics is understood "God's doing," the translation into apostolic works of truth and love, justice and fraternity of what is God's plan, I see no opposition between mysticism and politics.

It must be said that not all mystics have the same function. In some the grace of knowledge of God and of his mysteries prevails, to confirm in faith. In others the grace of personal and communal renewal prevails. In others there is also a grace of prophecy and an ecclesial political mission. I am thinking of Catherine of Siena, of Bridget, and even of Edith Stein, who wrote to Pius XI in defense of her people. This is why the three are mystics of their time and patronesses of Europe.

There are mystics who have this prophetic function in the Church and the world: to affirm forcefully the rights of God and his holy will against the abuses of the powerful.

Q: What would be the response of a mystic to the threat of war?

Father Castellano: I have no doubts: total condemnation of the one who arrogates to himself the right to be the interpreter of the needs of humanity by taking recourse to violence.

The mystic says forcefully that only God is God. He affirms with absolute clarity that the voice of God is peace and reconciliation, forgiveness and concord. He feels the very tenderness of God for all his children, and sees them as brothers, members of the same family.

I wish to quote St. Teresa. In her time there was a threat of war between Spain and Portugal. She did not limit herself to praying for peace. She wrote a letter to Sir Teutonio de Braganza, adviser to the king of Portugal, so that war would be absolutely avoided.

She felt like dying, given that evil hypothesis. And she wrote, among other things: "May the Lord give light so that the truth will be understood without the many deaths that would take place ... and at a time when there are so few Christians, it is a great misfortune that they should kill one another."

A mystic today would condemn war without hesitation, because he has a more acute awareness that all, absolutely all, are brothers and children of God.